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Kidnapped British reporter Alan Johnston appeared Friday in a videotape posted on an Islamic militant Web site, saying his captors had treated him well, denouncing Israel and blasting British and US Mideast policy. It was the first sign of life from him since he was abducted almost three months ago.
There was no way to tell when the video was recorded, and it was not clear why his captors chose this time to post it. The British Broadcasting Corp. journalist, who has been covering the Palestinian territories for three years, has a reputation for objectivity, and it seemed likely he was reciting what he was told to say.
The videotape appeared on the Al-Ekhlaas Web site, frequently used by Islamic militants. It bore the logo of the Army of Islam, the shadowy Palestinian group that had been believed to be holding the 45-year-old reporter, and opened with Arabic chanting and verses from the Quran.
The video ended with Johnston about to outline conditions for his release, only to have the tape cut away to an unidentified voice in Arabic demanding freedom for Islamic prisoners, including a radical cleric with ties to Al-Qaida imprisoned in Britain. The demand was accompanied by English subtitles.
Johnston looked fit and calm during the three minutes he spoke.
"My captors have treated me very well, they've fed me well, there has been no violence towards me at all and I am in good health," he said in his opening remarks - then launched into a litany of complaints about Israel, and British and US Mideast policy.
"In three years here in the Palestinian territories I have witnessed the huge suffering of the Palestinian people, and my message is that their suffering is continuing and that it is unacceptable. Every day there are Palestinians arrested, imprisoned for no reason. People are killed on a daily basis. Economic suffering is terrible, especially here in Gaza," he said.
"[There is] absolute despair after nearly 40 years of Israeli occupation which has been supported by the West.
"The situation in Iraq is even worse. We see every day maybe a hundred or more Iraqis being killed in the violence there which followed the failed invasion of Iraq by America and Britain. Ordinary people who are losing everything can't live their lives properly because of not just the violence but the shortage of everything they need for normal lives, for bringing up their children. Afghanistan the situation again, terrible," he went on.
"In all this we can see the British government endlessly working to occupy the Muslim lands against the will of the people in those places. From history the British worked to bring about the state of Israel, which is the cause of all the suffering of the Palestinian people.
"We the British are completely to blame along with the Americans for the situation in Iraq. And the British are the main force in Afghanistan causing all the trouble to ordinary, simple Afghans who simply want to live."
Johnston started relaying a message to his family, but was cut off. Subtitles then appeared on the videotape, saying, "The BBC refused to take this message to his family."
As the Arabic voice then spoke, the subtitles read as follows:
"We want Britain to free our prisoners and we specify sheikh 'Abu Qatada Alfelestiny' / and at this position we won't forget our prisoners in other kufor states / and we say to them, free our prisoners or we will deal with you the same / and we don't specify a state without the others and we say if you want the ransom to free them we will give you to the last peace [sic] of gold as the prophet Peace be Upon him told us to do."
Johnston was shown seated from the waist up, wearing what looked like a red sweatshirt, and speaking against a dark gray backdrop.
British officials were studying the video, the Foreign Office spokesman said, but "it is far too early to say whether this is a recent tape or to make any further comment."
"We are aware of the reports and we are investigating urgently," said Simon Wilson, the BBC bureau chief in Jerusalem.
Gaza-based analyst Shaker Shabat said the tape was a signal that Johnston's release was imminent.
"They are showing us evidence that Johnston is alive, and that is to seal the deal," Shabat said. "This is an indication that a deal is almost finished and Johnston will come out soon."
First footage of two Fox News journalists kidnapped in the summer of 2006 was released days before they were freed after two weeks in captivity. But they were held by a different group, and there was no guarantee that the same pattern would hold in Johnston's case.
Last week, an aide to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Islamic militant Hamas group said Johnston was alive and well, and could soon be set free.
Palestinian officials have said they knew where to find Johnston, but have held back on raiding the hideout at Britain's request, for fear of harming him.
The Palestinian government has instead tried to negotiate with the captors, while the British government has held talks with the Bin Laden associate it holds, Abu Qatada, in an effort to secure Johnston's release.
A Spanish judge once described Abu Qatada, a cleric of Palestinian-Jordanian descent, as Bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador in Europe."
On Friday, Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti demanded Johnston's immediate release.
"He has to be released immediately and unconditionally because his arrest and kidnapping is not only against freedom of press and human rights but also because it hurts the Palestinian people," Barghouti said.
Johnston has been missing far longer than any foreigner kidnapped in Gaza, and his kidnapping has led most news outlets to keep their foreign reporters out of the territory - a development the Palestinian government sees as hurting their people's cause.
Johnston's disappearance has touched off numerous protests and solidarity marches in London and the Palestinian territories.
On April 15th, a previously unknown group said it had killed him, but Palestinian officials dismissed that claim.
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